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British Columbia Amnesty investigates impact of resource extraction on indigenous communities

A hydraulic fracturing operation in the greater Fort St. John area in northeastern British Columbia.

Jeremy Sean Williams/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Every fall, Connie Greyeyes travels from Fort St. John, British Columbia, to Parliament Hill to take part in a rally honouring the lives of Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women. Every fall, she brings with her a banner bearing the names of the missing or murdered from her hometown: 13 women, including her aunt and cousin.

Jackie Hansen, who attended last year's rally in Ottawa and spotted the banner, remembers being taken aback by the number of names.

"For such a small community, it's a pretty long list," said Ms. Hansen, a women's rights campaigner for Amnesty International Canada.

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"We said, 'What's going on? Can we sit down and talk?'"

That talk would be the beginning of an Amnesty International Canada investigation into the social impact of large-scale natural-resource development projects on indigenous communities.

Representatives from the human-rights organization have since made two fact-finding trips to the oil and gas boomtown of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia and a third is planned for next month.

The organization is aiming to publish its findings next spring.

The investigation comes at a notable time.

Construction is under way on a massive work camp in northeastern British Columbia that, when completed, will house thousands of new workers coming to build the Site C dam.

Ms. Greyeyes said she believes Amnesty International Canada's findings will validate what is apparent to her as a long-time resident of the city: that huge influxes of transient workers have had a significant social impact on the community and increased the level of risk for women. She cited, as one example, rampant substance abuse by temporary workers.

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"Thousands of workers are coming here … and here, they're anonymous. They can do what they please until they get caught," Ms. Greyeyes said. "It's such a worry for me to go out on the weekends because the bars are filled with transient workers that have a lot of money in their pockets, and when you have the dynamic of alcohol and drugs, it's never a good mix for women."

Ms. Hansen said her organization's report will also explore other impacts that an influx of transient workers has on a community.

"You have a lot of people coming in and making a lot of money, but [Fort St. John] is their temporary residence and their tax dollars are going back home," she said. "So you're looking at a community where there's a tax base of roughly 22,000 people, but it's serving a population of around 70,000 at peak times in the oil patch. But it only has the funding for the 22,000 people."

This has resulted in "a very critical lack of affordable housing" and staffing shortages at hospitals and other service providers, Ms. Hansen said.

Meanwhile, prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau has called the problem of Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women "a national tragedy" and said this week that his government will move forward on a national inquiry quickly.

Ms. Greyeyes said the incoming Liberal government is reason to be optimistic.

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"I am so happy that there is change in the government, that Justin Trudeau will be involving leaders in our indigenous communities in the inquiry," she said. "I'm excited that [Mr. Trudeau] has said this is something he will be moving forward with. It's what [these women] deserve."

Rich Coleman, B.C.'s deputy premier and minister of housing, did not respond to a request for an interview.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a report on B.C.'s Highway of Tears, concluding that police have failed to protect indigenous women and girls in communities along Highway 16.

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